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Prison nurseries give incarcerated mothers a chance to raise their babies — behind bars

Advocates say keeping infants with their mothers, even behind bars, is good for both. Critics say it’s unconstitutional.
by Elizabeth Chuck /  / Updated 
Image: Lindsay Landon reads to her 10-month-old son Gabriel at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
Lindsay Landon reads to her son Gabriel at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Nirma Hasty / NBC News

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BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Lindsay Landon beamed as her 10-month-old son, Gabriel, scooted across a playroom. He crawled over to a baby walker, proudly pulled himself up to stand — then promptly fell over. Lip quivering, he looked to his mother.

“Aw, you want Mama?” Landon, 26, asked.

She scooped him into a hug and carried him to a window cracked just enough to let in the sound of chirping. Gabriel, unfazed by bars on the window, pointed to a bird. Soon he was all smiles again and played with his mother until a loud voice interrupted them.

“Count!”

Landon gave Gabriel a squeeze against her dark green jumpsuit and handed him off to a caregiver. It was time for the midday prisoner count at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — an all-women’s maximum-security prison in New York’s Westchester County where Landon is a prisoner and Gabriel has spent his entire young life.

Bedford Hills has the nation’s longest-running prison nursery. Opened in 1901, it has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences pregnant to bond with their babies while behind bars — something advocates say is best for babies and lowers the mothers’ recidivism rate, but some critics argue violates the children’s constitutional rights using taxpayer money, while placing a burden on prison staff by requiring them to double as day care workers.

Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States. The number of such programs has fluctuated as funding and sentiment toward them has risen and fallen, but now, more than ever, their effectiveness is under scrutiny as the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed.

There are nearly 214,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. — an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project. There is no official count of how many of these women give birth while imprisoned.

In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.

"A baby doesn’t know it’s in prison. A baby knows it’s with its mother."

“Separating a mother from her child at birth is a traumatic experience for both the child and mother,” said Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice, a consulting group that advises on the treatment of women and girls in criminal justice settings. "A baby doesn’t know it’s in prison. A baby knows it’s with its mother."

‘It’s still very much prison’

The Bedford Hills nursery has space for up to 26 mothers and serves an average of 40 each year. To qualify, pregnant women must be approved by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which considers the severity of their crime, any past history with a child welfare agency and the length of their sentence. Babies are generally allowed to stay in the prison for a year, but some stay up to 18 months if the mother is set to be released within that time.

Image: Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States
Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States.Nirma Hasty / NBC News

The nursery wing is separate from Bedford Hills’ general population. Each mom has her own small cell, sleeping on a cot inches away from her baby’s crib.

Babies are cared for by stringently screened and trained prisoners in an on-site day care while their mothers go to required activities, which include chores, work or school. In the evenings, the mothers have free time, which is often spent in the playroom with other mothers and their babies trading parenting tips, like getting babies to sleep through the night.

The women receive support services, ranging from a lactation consultant to a social worker. But it’s not easy: They must adhere to all prison rules and more, like not falling asleep with their babies in bed with them, which they learn during a prenatal class taught inside the nursery wing.

“It is very positive for the baby, but it’s hard work, and it’s still very much prison.”

“It’s a hard program,” said Jane Silfen, the director of programming at Hour Children, the nonprofit that the state corrections department has placed in charge of running the Bedford Hills nursery. “It is very positive for the baby, but it’s hard work, and it’s still very much prison.”

A chance to be a mother

Before her arrest, Landon was milking cows in Middlebury, Vermont, working overtime and pulling in $500 a week — not enough to cover expenses for her two oldest children, 3 and 5, who are currently living with their grandmother because their father is no longer involved.

Desperate for cash, Landon contacted dealers she had sold drugs with when she was younger.

“My criminal life took over and dominated my family life. I wasn’t quite the mother that I was — that I would have liked to have been,” Landon said from the Bedford Hills nursery playroom on an overcast day in June, nervously putting her blond hair up in a clip and taking it out again as she spoke. Her son bears a resemblance to her, with the same light hair and blue eyes.

In March 2016, Landon was arrested after police discovered 50 grams of cocaine on her during a traffic stop. She pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance; while out on bail, she learned she was pregnant. (Gabriel’s father was also convicted on a drug charge and is in prison as well.)

“I was contemplating having an abortion, which I wouldn’t under usual circumstances ever contemplate,” she said.

Landon was about two months pregnant when she entered prison in January 2017 to begin a three-year sentence that could be shortened by up to eight months for good behavior.

“To be in prison with my baby every day for the past 10 months has been a beautiful gift.”

She was thrilled when she learned about the nursery option at Bedford Hills.

“To be in prison with my baby every day for the past 10 months has been a beautiful gift,” she said. “To have an intimate bond with him. To be able to breastfeed. To be able to watch him grow and nourish him.”

Image: Lindsay Landon's son Gabriel plays with a plastic ball inside a playroom in the prison nursery
Lindsay Landon's son Gabriel plays with a plastic ball inside a playroom in the prison nursery.Nirma Hasty / NBC News

Still, Landon has always known that her time with Gabriel is limited. He was approved to be in the nursery for a year; after he turned 1 on Aug. 10, he was transferred to the care of Hour Children in Queens, New York.

Meanwhile, Landon, who had expected to finish her time in the general population at Bedford Hills — and would have only seen her son once every two weeks for visits — received a surprise from the state corrections department last week. She was granted work release, which allows her to work during the day and return to prison at night. She chose to work for Hour Children, so she can stop in and see Gabriel every weekday as she finishes out her sentence. Landon was transferred to Edgecombe Correctional Facility in Manhattan so she could be closer to her work release program.

The debate over prison nurseries

Not everyone believes the justice system should accommodate incarcerated mothers and their babies. Critics of prison nurseries argue it’s not only unfair, but also unconstitutional, for children to be behind bars.

“These placements of them by the states is done with no due process whatsoever,” James Dwyer, law professor at the College of William and Mary and one of the most outspoken critics of prison nurseries, said. “If someone challenged the way these babies were put in prison, any judge would have to grant the programs are unconstitutional.”

“If someone challenged the way these babies were put in prison, any judge would have to grant the programs are unconstitutional.”

Dwyer also fears that whatever a woman did to be convicted in the first place will haunt her — and the baby — after she is released.

“These women have so many difficulties and damage, that they are just not good long-term prospects as parents,” he said. “So if the children ever formed an attachment to the mother, it gets severed, which is traumatic, and it’s difficult for them to ever have healthy-attachment relationships with anyone else after that.”

Others object over worries about who will pay for the nurseries. (The Bedford Hills prison nursery uses about $176,000 in state funding annually, according to a Corrections Department spokesman, and also receives private grants and donations.) Critics also question who will staff the nurseries and how to ensure the babies are safe.

Still, there’s a growing push to create more nurseries. Those in favor point to research on how the women and babies fare long term — which is limited, but encouraging. One five-year study found that babies raised in prison nurseries had comparable rates of secure attachments — the secure sense of self that children develop thanks to support and stability from loving caregivers early in life — to healthy children raised in families on the outside.

Another study, conducted on Bedford Hills, found that the 3-year recidivism rate for all women released from prison was 26 percent, compared with 13 percent for nursery program participants.

But prison nurseries are not for everyone. Some mothers have trouble following the safety rules, which include not leaving your baby unattended. Others drop out voluntarily, either because they are overwhelmed by the program or because a relative or the baby’s father doesn’t like the idea of a baby raised behind bars.

Still, the program can be a safer alternative to life on the outside, said Silfen, of Hour Children, noting that many of the participants come from families coping with poverty or addiction.

“They get three square meals a day, all the stresses of what they had to deal with on the outside are not here. But obviously, they still need to work on what they’re dealing with that brought them here,” she said.

‘It takes a whole community to raise a child’

Hour Children continues supporting mothers after their release. The nonprofit runs an optional re-entry program in its Queens location, where newly freed mothers receive jobs, day care and housing, subsidized primarily by donations, with some funding from the state’s housing and mental health agencies. As long as the women are using the program’s services, they can stay as long as they like.

Crystal Roldan, 37, has been living in Hour Children housing since September 2015 with her youngest daughter, Aliviana, who turns 4 this week. Roldan was charged with burglary in January 2014 for breaking into her neighbor’s home, and gave birth to Aliviana at Bedford Hills while serving a nearly two-year sentence, which was reduced for good behavior. Now, Aliviana goes to the on-site day care at Hour Children and Roldan works nearby as a hair stylist — a lifelong dream that, before her conviction, she never thought would happen.

Image: Crystal Roldan holds her youngest daughter Aliviana
Crystal Roldan, 37, and her youngest daughter, Aliviana, who turns 4 this month.Nirma Hasty / NBC News

“The day I was arrested, two days prior to that, I filled a prescription for 120 Xanax. When I was arrested, I had zero Xanax in that bottle,” she said, adding she had no idea she was about five weeks pregnant with Aliviana at that point. “I just didn’t want to live.”

Hour Children has provided her with a social worker, a drug treatment program and a mentor. Seated in a community space at Hour Children, Roldan said it has kept her out of trouble and kept Aliviana happy. (Roldan also has three teenage children who were raised by their father after she lost custody of them years ago.)

“It takes a whole community to raise a child. And this community here is a community that’s knowledgeable in drug and alcohol treatment, knowledgeable in dealing with the incarceration piece,” she said. Her biggest goal, she added, is keeping her daughter “from going down the same path I went down.”

‘It’s more important for the babies to be with the mom’

When Landon is released from prison, as soon as April 2019, she plans to finish her education. She had been studying to be a nutritionist before her arrest, although now she is considering osteopathic medicine — anything stable, so she doesn’t fall into old habits.

For now, she has enjoyed watching Gabriel grow up, grateful for the chance to paint, dance and listen to music with him, even though it’s been behind bars.

“Originally, when I was pregnant, being in this environment, I was thinking not that babies don’t belong here — but I was kind of a critic myself, because this is a maximum-security prison,” Landon said.

She has since changed her mind.

“It’s more important for the babies to be with the mom,” she said, “than to be sent home to be raised with other people.”

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